When Louis Bloom was anointed as the new President of Island Records UK back in May, there was one question on the cynical lips of the industry: What’s he going to sign?
This, it turns out, was not quite the correct question to ask.
Bloom has never had an issue during his 20-year career when it comes to locating, and committing to, talent. (He was, in fact, something of an inveterate A&R by adolescence; as you’ll learn below, he made his first crucial artist development decision at 11 years of age.)
Instead, the post-promotion question nagging the loudest at Oldham-born Bloom is the flip-reverse of that expected. Namely: What am I not going to sign?
Now, four months of deep contemplation on, safely nestled in Universal Music Group’s pristine new Kings Cross edifice, he has his answer.
“There’s more music than ever being released, so [as a label head] you have a very clear choice to make,” he says. “You either play the market share game, or you do what Island is going to do: you focus solely on what’s truly great.
“That can be a smash hit, or it can be an artist proposition that affects culture. But what we can’t have anymore is something in the middle; something grey.”
Bloom realises that, to a certain degree, the pressure is on.
Island UK enjoyed a truly golden run under the co-Presidency of Darcus Beese (now Island US’s head) and Ted Cockle (Virgin EMI’s chief) a few years back, breaking a run of world-beating domestic artists including Amy Winehouse, Florence + The Machine, Mumford & Sons, Disclosure, Ben Howard, Jessie J and Hozier.
In more recent years, though, these big wins have become notably less frequent (although Bloom and his core team remain doggedly convinced of the star-in-waiting potential of Norwegian BBC Sound Of winner, Sigrid.)
Says Bloom: “The world of youth culture, the network, seems hardwired towards the edge today – what’s memorable, what’s provocative. You can see that, in a more destructive way unfortunately, in politics.
“So we know we can’t afford to be boring; we have to give complete focus to our artists, and to only signing artists with a personality or a voice that truly emotes.”
“You either play the market share game, or you do what Island is going to do: you focus solely on what’s truly great.”
Since that golden Amy-Florence-Mumford period, of course, the cogs of the music business machinery have altered considerably. Streaming playlists, engineered in the US, are driving international audience taste, while also reflecting the meteoric rise of Stateside hip-hop as the globe’s No.1 musical genre.
Bloom is under no illusions: the challenge of breaking a UK-signed artist on the world stage today is steeper than ever.
“The UK A&R [community] had it too good before, because we weren’t competing like we are now, with the entire world,” says Bloom. “The way you win today, in my view, is with artists who represent a culture clash which reflects modern Britain.
“Whether it’s Amy Winehouse influencing Adele, or Ben Howard setting the stage for George Ezra, Island is at its best when it’s bringing the leftfield to the mainstream, and balancing that with thoroughbred hitmakers.
“We are custodians of a great legacy, which of course we hugely respect, but we can’t let it weigh us down. We have to bring new meaning to the palm tree.
“Today, the audience is a click away from the Beatles, a click away from Marvin Gaye, a click away from Bob Marley – you have to do something new, because otherwise those fans can just go straight to the source.”
So, about that crucial A&R decision in his childhood.
Louis Bloom was born in March, 1976 – just as epic serenade I’m Not In Love by 10cc was being hammered on UK radio. It was a portentous soundtrack to his arrival into the world.
Bloom’s father is Graham Gouldman, founding member and savant songwriter in 10cc. The now-Island President recognises that growing up in and around music was to have a profound effect on his adult life.
“After my parents got divorced, my dad went to live in London while I grew up with my mum [in Rochdale and Hale, near Manchester],” says Bloom. “Dad always made an effort to see me and whenever we’d meet up, as I got older, we’d go for a meal – a curry, every time. We talked endlessly about music because that’s something we really had in common.
“My dad’s an artist, he’s got an artist’s temperament, and I listened a lot to him. I guess it’s interesting to draw that comparison with what I’m doing now: listening to artists about music, about their ideas, their fears and concerns, and trying to help them.”
It would be bizarre if the offspring of an architect of 10cc wasn’t into The Beatles – and, sure enough, that’s where Bloom’s obsession with music began. (The Island man even remembers learning to read via the lyrics from Sgt. Pepper).
“The [Monkeys] were – and always will be – the one that got away; I vowed never to be second on stuff ever again.”
Bloom’s dad also handed down an appreciation of master songwriters, from Bacharach and David to Jimmy Webb, in addition to a cornucopia of musical greats via his vast record collection.
By the time Bloom was 11, he was well trained. Gouldman asked his son which of two tracks should be the next single from his new band, Wax, and after due deliberation, Bloom obliged, picking Bridge To Your Heart – a song which would become that group’s highest-charting hit, going Top 10 in the Netherlands, Spain and Sweden in 1987.
“He was genuinely interested in my opinion on it,” says Bloom. “And then, picture it: I’m at school and my dad is on Top Of The Pops playing that song. It was the weirdest thing.
“I was a bit too young for 10cc, but I was there for that moment. It gave me a little taste of the glamour of the music business, and it was quite intoxicating.”
The Gouldman-Bloom family’s relationship with the entertainment industry is a long-standing one. Graham’s father, Hymie Gouldman, was a socialist Jewish playwright who, according to Louis, “was completely skint because he refused to sell out, but was a hugely creative and brilliant man who helped my dad write the lyrics to the Yardbirds songs in his early career”.
Adds Bloom: “The one thing, professionally speaking, I really respect about my dad over anything else is his work ethic.
“He’s 72 years old and he works harder than anyone I know, gigging everywhere. That, combined with this constant thirst for reinvention, I’m in awe of it -– and it’s taught me a real respect for any artist that finds a way to keep moving forward.”
“Even when I was on work experience, I recognised that Darcus had this magnetic energy.”
Bloom went on to study law at the University of Birmingham (“kind of to keep my mum happy”), before doing work experience at various record labels, including Island.
“That’s where I first met Darcus, and, honestly, he made me want to be an A&R person right away,” says Bloom. “We had incredible debates about politics, about culture and, of course, about music.
“In the decades ahead, he would show himself to be a master of music. I’ve watched him talk to artists over the years and learned so much. He’s always really honest, but he balances that with leaving his artists motivated.
“Even when I was on work experience, I recognised that Darcus had this magnetic energy. Plus, he taught me how to roll the perfect spliff, which was very handy for when I got back to university…”
After finishing his degree, Bloom started applying for jobs at record companies. Amusingly enough, this included Island – who “chose someone else” – before Bloom landed a gig as a scout at RCA in 1999, working under then-boss Mike McCormack. It was a crash course in the harsh realities of major label life.
“Mike left after three weeks, so that was a shock,” recalls Bloom. “I was on about 10 grand a year and I didn’t know what the fuck I was doing. I was overthinking everything, and was desperate for something to work. And when you’re in that stressed-out frame of mind, making something work actually becomes far more difficult.”
Bloom remembers sneaking his way into a fateful meeting alongside industry bigshots Richard Griffiths, Simon Cowell, Nick Raphael, Danny D and Tim Blacksmith.
“These guys were like the masters of the universe,” he says. “They were all serious personalities, and you couldn’t help but be impressed. Simon Cowell, this was pre-X-Factor, he was a complete superstar already.
“But, that day, I knew I couldn’t survive much longer – they were so sure of what they stood for, and I didn’t really have an idea.”
“As soon as I came to Universal, I felt this culture which allowed you the freedom to fail.”
From there, Bloom joined Paul Adam at Island Records in 2002 as Junior A&R Manager.
“Simon Cowell always said to me, Find yourself a mentor, and in Paul I really discovered one,” says Bloom. “Paul deserves a lot of credit, not just for believing in me, but also bringing through people like Joe Kentish [Dua Lipa’s A&R at Warner Bros today].
“As soon as I came to Universal, I felt this culture which allowed you the freedom to fail – so long as you were trying, and taking risks, it was okay. In my view, that creates the conditions in which people can do their best work.
“You can still see that [at Universal UK] today under David [Joseph, CEO and Chairman]. I’ve got a lot of respect for David. He’s got great perspective and clarity of thought; he’s got great taste and he’s got a very sophisticated take on popular culture. Combine all of that with tenacity and then humility, and he’s an inspiring person to have as the head of this company.”
Adds Bloom: “Paul and I looked at Muff [Winwood] and Lincoln [Elias, co-Presidents of Sony BMG’s S2 Records], with huge respect – the dynamic of youth and experience. That’s something I’ve tried to do here, whether it’s me and Annie [Christensen] working on Ben Howard, or me and Alex [Boateng] working on JP Cooper.
“People can get sniffy about ‘trusting the experts’ these days, but I’ve always believed in that combination.”
The first act Bloom brought in to Paul Adam at Island was a big one: Busted. The ‘boyband with guitars’ went on to release two studio albums, which both went multi-Platinum.
When Busted split in 2004, they left the runway clear for their obvious successors – another Bloom signing – McFly. Yet more chart-topping, Platinum albums went up on the wall at Universal HQ.
Bloom was becoming a rising star. And in a parallel universe, at this point, that star would have gone supernova – via one of the most celebrated British bands ever.
“I was in so early on Arctic Monkeys,” recalls Bloom. “I was in Sheffield to see another band, I called [manager] Geoff Barradale and he said, Come and see my new act. I immediately thought they were brilliant. “I got so tight with them that I was helping edit their setlists at one point. I offered them an album deal but I was told they weren’t ready.”
He adds: “I was doing these trips across the Pennines to go and see them. I remember arriving in Manchester to see a gig one night and as soon as I got out of the car I spotted Alex Turner.
“I was always attracted to him as a personality – he’s so smart and was wise beyond his years. We talked about the deal together that night. But then, over the next few weeks, Zane played [I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor], this avalanche happened and I lost control.”
“I saw Mumfords in a record store in East London, when they played The Cave, and it was like an epiphany – a religious experience.”
Bloom says: “Ever since then I’ve got much better, more ruthless, at nailing a signing when my instincts say yes – moving heaven and earth to make it happen.
“The [Monkeys] were – and always will be – the one that got away; I vowed never to be second on stuff ever again.”
That certainly hasn’t been an issue for Bloom’s run of career-making signings at Island over the past decade, including Catfish & The Bottlemen, Hozier, JP Cooper, Gotye (and his smash 2011 single Somebody That I Used to Know), John Newman, Ben Howard and, of course, Mumford & Sons.
“I was following Mumfords closely, and then I saw them in a record store in East London, when they played The Cave, and it was like an epiphany – a religious experience,” says Bloom.
“They have this amazing inclusivity about them and I found myself, even as this Mancunian cynic, just getting lost in it.”
Bloom acknowledges that the UK conditions in which Mumfords broke – especially that of an all-powerful domestic radio platform and a healthy printed specialist music press – are now forever changed.
This trad media landscape has given ground to streaming, which has, in turn, enabled US megastars to further hog the limelight.
Bloom is adamant that Mumfords would have made the same cultural noise regardless. And, as Island puts its full force behind making Sigrid the star the team believes she should be, Bloom forcibly quashes the idea that breaking US-conquering stars out of the UK is a bygone narrative.
“It’s hard to have perspective on what’s happening culturally when you’re in the middle of something; you need distance to really see what’s going on,” he says.
“When I lived in Manchester [as a kid] I remember watching Tony Wilson on Granada Reports, in this debate about, Why has music gone stale?
“It was the mid-eighties, and you looked at the charts and you saw Chris De Burgh and Wet Wet Wet and all of that middle of the road music.
“What [Wilson] argued was that the [mainstream] didn’t know was that Madchester was about to explode, rave culture was taking off, and hip-hop was coming from the States. That stuck with me – the idea that what’s above the surface in the music business isn’t necessarily how things will look tomorrow.”
“We’ve gone back to the ‘50s and ‘60s in terms of how important the song is to this business.”
He adds: “I try to remember that when we’re selling records, we’re selling to a lot of people that don’t care if they never listen to anything new again.
“When you’re in the London music business bubble, that dose of reality can be sobering.”
There’s been a lot of noise around major labels tailoring A&R to best suit streaming services of late – making sure a hook appears in the first 30 seconds of a song, for instance. How does Bloom feel about that level of manipulation?
“Our target at Island is, always, to have a meaningful artist breaking through globally,” he says. “That takes immense attention to detail. The record’s got to be totally nailed on in terms of production and structure.
“We’ve gone back to the ‘50s and ‘60s in terms of how important the song is to this business. To truly cut through, past all the great stuff that’s coming from America at the moment, every element has to be really well delivered.”
He adds: “The evolution of technology has always been a massive disruptor in musical history, and it’s always rewarded the innovators and the pioneers – whether that’s Stevie Wonder using synths to push the boundaries of pop and R&B, or whether it’s beat-makers in a bedroom today using new software.
“You have to respond to the way new technology affects the listener. This is a low-attention economy, driven by streaming, but there are also other considerations – does, for example, the fact that most people listen on headphones as opposed to speakers today affect the way they process lyrics?
“It’s important we think hard about these things, in A&R as much as anything else.”
Bloom says that he’s instinctively attracted to “purist” artists, and yet – as his career attests – he’s not shy of inking a deal for a sure-fire pop hit when the time calls for it. How does he balance his affinity with the artful against his hunger for commercial triumph?
“This might sound a bit pretentious, but I don’t see those two things as mutually exclusive, at all,” he says. “Picasso made art that transformed the way we look at the world, and then Andy Warhol made art which reflected popular culture. Both are geniuses, and both mindsets are completely valid for me in terms of their contribution to the world.”
“I’ve never been in music for the flashy parties or the nice cars.”
He continues: “I’m often attracted to artists that maybe don’t want to sign to a major, artists who are very protective of their art. But over time that trust develops. Whether it’s Mumford or JP [Cooper] or Ben [Howard], I hope I’ve proven to those artists that I’m coming from a good place, and I care about their career.
“Sometimes I’ve had conversations with artists telling them not to go too quickly, not to cash in, not to go for the obvious hit [straight away]. It can feel odd when those words come out of your mouth, but you’ve got to protect the artist when it’s appropriate – otherwise, what’s the point in you being there?
“I’ve never been in music for the flashy parties or the nice cars. I just want to be as close to artists as possible and to have a positive influence in their lives.
“That, for me, represents happiness, and it represents success.”
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